Best of 2018

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This year, I found myself being drawn to films that presented an empathetic worldview. What I mean by this is that in many movies how the filmmakers treat the characters through the plot, dialogue, cinematography, or framing, can be quite cruel. Many filmmakers seem to hate their own characters or prioritize utilitarian filmmaking techniques over presenting human dignity. These can result in aesthetically beautiful movies that may be philosophical but have cold centers. I looked for movies this year that were both intellectually fulfilling and empathetically warm and hopeful. Not a Pollyanna type of optimism, but grounded, true hope. So here are some of the best films of 2018 that I felt did this. 

10. Black Panther

One of Marvel’s most sophisticated offerings to date and a wakeup call for Hollywood, Black Panther ushers in a more socially-aware blockbuster era while still being loads of fun.  

9. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

This documentary about Fred Rogers dives deep into his philosophy of teaching and using media wisely. It refuses to look too closely at Mister Roger’s flaws, but ultimately, it isn’t about one man. It’s about you, and what you will do to honor his legacy and vision.

  1. Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace uses the story of a girl and her father living on the outskirts of society to ask questions about the necessity of organized society for human fulfillment and development. But Leave No Trace is so unassuming you may not even realize it’s prompted you to think about its ideas for months after you see the film. 

  1. The Hate U Give

The young-adult version of Blindspotting, The Hate U Give balances heavy material with the personal life of protagonist Starr, giving the movie a powerful ability to feel both timely and archetypal. Amandla Stenberg carries the entire movie with ease and confidence that makes her an actress to watch.

  1. First Reformed

While billed as a drama, this story about a pastor’s crisis of faith is really a kind of horror story. A deeply uncomfortable but moving film, I am thankful director Paul Schrader is willing to tackle an area the rest of Hollywood refuses to touch, and does so in an unabashed and courageous manner.

  1. Eighth Grade

Elsie Fisher is a revelation in this humane and insightful look at tweenhood. A must-see for parents, middle-schoolers, or anyone who just wants to understand the new world young people are navigating today.

  1. Shoplifters

Shoplifters is a Japanese film about a poor “family” that must navigate the line where personal morality is more just than the law. It’s an engaging and constantly surprising drama that I would recommend watching as a double feature with Leave No Trace.

  1. Blindspotting

Blindspotting portrays a black and white friendship that, like Green Book, is easy to root for. But where Green Book fails Blindspotting succeed by not shying away from the complexities of how race affects interpersonal relationships. By holding both its white and black characters accountable, it gives a nuanced view of how racism works in the modern world. Its ending scene is also one of the best of the year, holding the audience hostage for a breathtaking scene of catharsis that films like BlackKklansman failed to deliver.

  1. Sorry to Bother You

Surreal, inventive, and wholly unique. Like I said in my review of the film, Sorry to Bother You captures the feeling of 2018.

  1. Annihilation

Eleven months later and I still vividly remember how I felt watching Annihilation for the first time, and it gets better with every rewatch.  It is one of the best science fiction movies of the last few years, and a poignant exploration of pain and self-destruction.

 

Honorable Mentions: A Quiet Place RBG, Venom, Roma, Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, Vice, Mary Poppins Returns, Tomb Raider, The Kindergarten Teacher, Christopher Robin, and not a movie but some of the year’s most affecting storytelling, Serial Podcast season 3.

Dishonorable Mentions: How it Ends, Teen Titans Go! To the Movies, Ready Player One, Mary Queen of Scots.

-Madeleine D.

P.S,

This is the 100th post of madeleinelovesmovies! Thank you for your readership and support. I hope you had a wonderful 2018, and I look forward to seeing what 2019 has in store!

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The Book of Ecclesiastes and A Series of Unfortunate Events

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Tomorrow, the third and last season of Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events will premiere. I plan to binge it starting the minute I wake up and weep until the moment I fall asleep. Based on the thirteen book series of the same name by Daniel Handler, (using the pseudonym Lemony Snicket) the Netflix series has been a beautiful adaptation that wonderfully captures the quirky and rich tone of the books.

A Series of Unfortunate Events, or ASOUE as I will refer to it from here on out, is technically considered children’s literature, and indeed I read it for the first time as a child. But, as with the best books, with every reread (I think I’m on number 5) the series becomes richer, and I truly believe it is for adults as much as it is for children.

In the summer of 2018, I began to reread the last few books of the series to prepare for the new season. About this time, Ricky Jones, minister at RiverOaks Presbyterian Church in Tulsa, began a series on the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament. As I was listening to these sermons and reading these books, I came to a realization: ASOUE embodies the lessons of Ecclesiastes, and it does so better than any other book I’ve read.

So with that claim, I’d like to show you how this children’s series teaches the book of Ecclesiastes, and why you should read it to your children and/or to yourself.

What Are These Unfortunate Events?

ASOUE follows the lives of the three Baudelaire children: Violet, 14 years old and a gifted inventor, Klaus, 12, who is an avid reader and researcher, and Sunny, a baby (although “baby” is a loose term in this universe) who has sharp teeth useful for biting things and later becomes a chef. The series is a mishmash of all sorts of genre, but “gothic absurdism” is probably the best term for it. The TV show has been described as Wes Anderson meets Tim Burton, which is certainly a start, but that is not enough to fully encapsulate the stylism (and heart) of the series.

In the first book, The Bad Beginning, the children are orphaned by a terrible fire that also destroys their home. They are sent to live with a relative they didn’t know existed, Count Olaf. They find that Olaf is an evil man who only adopted them in order to steal their fortune, and was the one who murdered their parents for that sole reason. In the first book alone, he slaps Klaus, locks Sunny in a cage and suspends her on top of a tower, and his plan to get the Baudelaire fortune is to try to marry Violet.

(On a side note, I can’t believe a publisher read this and thought, yes, this is a good investment. And then some movie and TV executives were like, yes, this is a good investment.)

If that sounds all very questionable, hold in your outrage and keep reading. We’re going to put a pin in that.

Anyway, the Baudelaires succeed in foiling Olaf’s plan and reveal him to the authorities, but Olaf escapes capture. After this, the next six books appear to follow a formula. The Baudelaires are taken to another relative’s home, the relative either seems mean and incompetent or is kind and then quickly killed, and Count Olaf shows up in a disguise to try and take the Baudelaire fortune. He always manages to escape arrest because no adults believe the Baudelaires when they try to reveal Olaf under his disguise.

By the eighth book, the Baudelaires are on their own, on the run after being framed for murder, but Count Olaf still manages to find them wherever they go. As the series goes on, the Baudelaires find themselves doing more and more of the villainous things Count Olaf has done, like wear disguises, lie, and burn things down. They realize that maybe they were not as heroic as they thought and that anyone if pushed could commit evil deeds. The series ends at a point where the Baudelaires and Count Olaf are uncomfortably similar, have both committed the same evil deeds, and on the same (literal and figurative) boat. The heart of the story is the classic question of is there any such thing as purely good or bad people?

This is a coming of age narrative, as most children’s books are. Most children’s books tell children they are going to face hard times and will need to rely on love and friendship to overcome it. A powerful example of this is the Harry Potter series.*

But ASOUE, I believe, goes a step further by showing its protagonists doing really terrible things, which makes the story not about children overcoming evil with good, but about children coming to terms with the way evil is in all of us, and how that should shape our worldview and the way we deal with others. The series’s thesis, if you will, can be summed up in this quote that is repeated in several books:

“People aren’t either wicked or noble. They’re like chef’s salads, with good things and bad things chopped and mixed together in a vinaigrette of confusion and conflict.”

The series, while sometimes fantastical, are grounded enough in reality that the villainy of the various characters feels very different from other children’s books. Harry Potter, for example, has its villains kill other characters through magic. The magic element creates some distance between the reader and the action because we know magic doesn’t exist in our world.  

ASOUE is whimsical, subversive, and dead-pan in enough areas that the villainy displayed is not gratuitous or sensational, or even clearly recognized as the following things, but technically, ASOUE includes characters (both good and evil) kidnapping, physically abusing, abandoning, and attempting to perform non-consensual surgery on children. Characters also fake suicide, murder others, are shipwrecked, join cults, experience mob violence, and die giving birth.

At this point you may be saying, “Hold up. I am a good parent who doesn’t want my child to read about people, including the child protagonists, lying, stealing, and committing arson! And I don’t want a series that illustrates teachers, guardians, and other trusted authority figures doing all of those terrible things and other adults turning a blind eye.”

Put a pin in that too, we’ll return to that.

In ASOUE Lemony Snicket is the author and narrator. He is a character within the story, recording the events of the series. He constantly interrupts the story to say how he obtained this evidence, how he is related to different characters in the story, and offers advice to the reader. He is the Sarah Koenig of the fictional universe in ASOUE, recording the story of these children whose parents he knew. Sometimes his commentary is funny (“The children were not born yesterday… Neither were you, unless of course I am wrong, in which case welcome to the world, little baby, and congratulations on learning to read so early in life”). But usually, his commentary is melancholy and used to reflect on the themes of the series (“The sad truth is that the truth is sad”). He acts like the narrator, the preacher, in Ecclesiastes.

The Book of Ecclesiastes, Briefly Explained.

In “The Bittersweet Symphony,” Pastor Ricky introduces Ecclesiastes by telling us what the author (most likely King Solomon) is trying to say. Ricky says,

“The author of Ecclesiastes… wants to explain life to us. He wants to tell us how to avoid the potholes he himself has fallen into. It’s a hard lesson, a hard message. Grown-up messages usually are… He has to show us the emptiness of every ambition. The ambition for knowledge, for wisdom… for success, for money, for power. He forces us to face the bitter folly of chasing after those things. He teaches us the very simple truth: enjoy the life you have, it’s a gift from God, and wait upon the judge to make things right.”

Ricky goes on to use an illustration of a man who takes his kids to a junkyard. The man pulls his kids aside and points out the cars that are all rusted and broken up, and says to them, “You see those rusted out, junk cars? Those all made someone really happy one day.” He keeps pointing out items and saying, “All those things you think are so important? They’re all going to end up here.”

In the last book, aptly titled The End, the Baudelaires wash up onto an island, and the people on the island repeat several times that “everything washes up on these shores.” The children find all sorts of items, both from their own lives and not, have washed up on the island into a literal junkpile. The book takes a lot of time to express both sadness and relief that everything ends up such. In the worldview of ASOUE, like Ecclesiastes, there is comfort in the fact that nothing is new under the sun, and everything will be equal in the end.

Ricky goes on to talk about why Christians often hate Ecclesiastes, and it’s because most books of the Bible are studied by going through them verse-by-verse, which is great for other books but terrible for Ecclesiastes. If you only look at verses two through four, you get:

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.”

Wow, what a bummer. Might as well stop writing right now, as what’s the point?

Similarly, reading the first few books of ASOUE, which appear to be really repetitive, might equally frustrate you. But once you read the whole series, like the entire book of Ecclesiastes, things start to come into focus.

The repetition is purposeful. Ricky says that Ecclesiastes teaches that “life is a circle. Ignore that to your frustration, or embrace it and find peace…. Those circles frustrate people who are trying to get somewhere.” But circles are comforting for those who understand them. Circles and patterns of life help us know we’re not alone.  

The repetition of ASOUE, then, makes sense. Not just from a narrative standpoint but a thematic one. And yes, it is frustrating. When I was younger my dad read me dozens of books and series out loud before bed. He read the entirety of The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, but it was ASOUE that nearly broke him, because of the repetitive nature of the beginning of the series.

Yet this is used to great effect. In the series, after the first few repetitions, the Baudelaires learn that no one is going to save them from Count Olaf, so they begin to proactively work to protect themselves. After a few more repetitions, they realize they are becoming more like the flawed adults in their lives, and so they begin to forgive those adults and ask for forgiveness themselves. And by the end of the series, they finally are able to find it in themselves to admit that they know their parents aren’t coming back, and are able to give up waiting for them and instead focus on parenting a child whose mother has just died, becoming parents themselves.

The book of Ecclesiastes teaches that, in Ricky’s words, “Meaning cannot be found under the sun. If you’re trying to justify yourself through your job, by your money, by your pleasure, by your family, by your wisdom, you will fail… by helping the poor, overturning oppression, you will fail. Wrong will only be made right when everyone stands before the judgment, and on that day, you will have meaning. You’ll understand why you are here and what this life was for…. On that day we will be comforted… But until that day, remember the Lord.”

In ASOUE, all of the above justifications are embodied by different characters, and all of those characters end up dead, sad, and with many regrets. Olaf is clearly driven by greed, pleasure, and ambition. Justice Strauss tried to help the poor and overturn oppression. Even Kit Snicket tried to live a noble life, but her ideals of bravery and family and goodness did not lead to satisfaction because she put her faith in a human- therefore flawed- organization. Through these failings of others, the Baudelaires see all the ways they cannot define their life.

A Misrepresentation

A shallow reading of ASOUE has caused some readers to come to the conclusion that this series, because of the multiple adult characters who fail to see a villain in disguise, is about adults being stupid and kids being smart.

That is not what this series is about.

It is made clear in each book that every adult who doesn’t help the Baudelaires or seems inept chooses to be so because of self-preservation, or it is inconvenient for them to intervene, or it doesn’t fit into their worldview. Many of the adults in the series are good and do try to help the Baudelaire, and many who fail them are later forgiven and do the right thing when given another shot. All of this is used to illustrate the series’s point that children see the world in black and white, and when they grow up, they realize how much more complicated it is, and that they will eventually be more like those people then they wanted to be.

In the climax of the series, Snicket summarizes this theme by saying, “Each story had its story, and each story’s story was unfathomable in the Baudelaire orphans short journey” (The Penultimate Peril). The series takes the, “you become your parents” saying quite literally. It is a not a ‘kids rule, adults drool’ tale. It is a tale about giving children the tool they need to have empathy and forgiveness for the adults who will let them down, and gently tells them that they will do the same to others.

The series, as a coming of age narrative, boils down to this:

Children, you are so bright and talented, and the world needs you. Your thoughts, your skills, and your experiences are all important and should be paid attention to.

As you grow up, you are going to see adults who are supposed to protect you, let you down. Many times, they don’t mean to. But as you grow into an adult yourself, you’ll realize that the world is very complicated. It is full of secrets and full of people not knowing what to do, and being forced to make very difficult choices. Everyone comes from different places and has limitations. You don’t know everyone’s story.

Join with people who, even when they make mistakes, never give up trying to learn more about other people and the world. Forgive everyone, because you need forgiveness, too. Sometimes you’ll do things you swore you’d never do, and that will help you realize that everyone needs a second chance. But sometimes people are never going to be healthy or safe to be around, and that’s when you need to cut them out of your life.

Everyone is full of good and evil inside of them. It is your job to try and bring out the best in others and yourself, and make the world a more peaceful place. That doesn’t mean hiding out in places where you feel secure. That means going out into the world, into the brokenness and danger, and loving it the best you can. Even if you never see it come on this earth, long for justice and peace. Sometimes your life will feel like a big mystery itself, and you will wish for answers. One day, you will get them. For now, love the life you have. It is a gift.

You may have noticed in that some similarities to Ecclesiastes. The mystery of our existence. The desire for a judgment day and comfort. Honesty about the state of the world.

Like Ecclesiastes, this is a very grown-up message, particularly for children, but I can’t think of a better one to impart (to people of all ages) in order to begin to sow the seeds of wisdom, empathy, resilience, and hope.

Nothing is Unproblematic

ASOUE is not a perfect allegory by any means. Daniel Handler is a self-described “secular humanist,” and that certainly comes through. The series is a cry for justice, but it ultimately comes to the conclusion that such a thing doesn’t actually exist, because humans can never be truly just, and the series offers no higher power. 

The books bravely explore the depravity of man but offer no hope except that people can just try to be the best they can and sometimes that will end up being enough. The books advocate forgiveness, hospitality, and sometimes, absolute truth, but there are no reasons behind those things except that it’s the moral thing to do. The themes of generational sin and breaking from it are all framed through the lenses of characters realizing their own capacity for evil, but ultimately choosing to do good, assuring readers that you are ultimately in control of your ability to be righteous. The Bible instead teaches that humans are completely depraved and are slaves to sin, and are only freed from that when saved.

These contradictions are most present in The End, which borrows imagery from Genesis’s temptation in the garden in a way that reinterprets God and/or religion as a strict and abusive parent that only serves as the opium of the people, Karl Marx style. Yet in the same book the Christmas story- God coming from a holy and perfect place to dwell among sinners- is beautifully illustrated.

Oh, and of course, the previously mentioned violence, which is very tastefully handled and not nearly as shocking in the context of the books as it is me putting it in a list, but can still be very grim for the target audience (although most of those things can be found in the Bible, and often in the stories that frequent children’s church and VBS).

And finally, there have been multiple allegations of Handler making inappropriate comments to women, and there was the infamous watermelon “joke” he made while presenting an award to Jacqueline Woodson 2014. I’m not going to go further into it, but this history does, for me, put Handler firmly in the category of “creative person I greatly admire but would never actually want to meet in real life.”

Yet I don’t think any of that should dissuade you from reading ASOUE, and here’s why.

Everything Can Be Holy

Pastor Timothy Keller writes that,

“The Bible consistently teaches what theologians have come to call ‘common grace,’ a non-saving grace that is at work in the broader reaches of human cultural interaction. This gift of God’s grace to humanity, in general, demonstrates a desire on God’s part to bestow certain blessings on all human beings, believer and non-believer alike…. God also shows common grace by revealing knowledge of himself through human culture, for human culture is simply a wise recognition and cultivation of nature… All artistic expressions, skillful farming, scientific discoveries, medical and technological advances are expressions of God’s grace.”

Boiled down, common grace is the idea that every human, no matter what belief system he/she ascribes to, reflects the image of God and that all human civilizations carry truths about God and his creation. Christians have much to learn from the art, teachings, and stories of non-Christians. ASOUE then is worth reading because of the truths it carries. I have just illustrated some of the wisdom that can be found from its pages.

Of course, as with consuming any type of media, everyone must determine for themselves how discerning they must be. Some children are not ready for the dark turns the series can take. Some adults may not have a firm enough handle on their faith yet to consider the philosophical attacks the series poses on Christianity. Some children are not able to understand the bad actions of the characters within their larger meaning and consequences. These questions ought to be thoughtfully considered.

But for those who are now intrigued and feel confident that they can read the series, here is what I think will be gained.

The Concluding Case

I rank ASOUE alongside The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings with books that, as an elementary/middle schooler, gave me the metaphors I needed to understand the world around me. These books helped me reconcile what I was experiencing in the world with the lessons I was learning in church. They showed me that the biblical lessons I was being taught contained answers that people, whether people in my life or these fictional characters, were looking for.

ASOUE, unlike Narnia, is not a straight allegory, and certainly not an intentionally Christian one at that, so when it asks questions, it doesn’t have an answer. In that way, the series is comforting to those of us who need to know its okay not to have answers, or need to be comfortable wrestling with doubt and pain. ASOUE is a lamentation for all sorts of things. In fact, at almost the very end of the last book, our main characters just sit together and cry, lamenting for all of the tragedies the series describes. It reads,

“There is a kind of crying I hope you have not experienced, and it is not just crying about something terrible that has happened, but a crying for all of the terrible things that have happened, and not just to you but to everyone you know and to everyone you don’t know and even people you don’t want to know, a crying that cannot be diluted by a brave deed or a kind word, but only by someone holding you as your shoulders shake and your tears run down your face” (The End).

Beat that, Percy Jackson and the Olympians.

I kid, I kid. But the resoluteness of ASOUE to face pain, hardships, and unknowns, and to not give superficial answers to children, strikes me as extremely admirable.

Now, as a young adult, not only does re-reading ASOUE give me a greater appreciation for Handler’s writing and the allusions and sophisticated jokes and puns that went over my head as a kid, but it also helps me in a different way. In this world of both overwhelming depressing news coverage and overwhelming distraction, it can be very hard to meditate on the role of pain in one’s life, and I find this series helping me do that very thing. I can also realize with greater clarity now that ASOUE isn’t complete.

If we take the four pillars of the gospel- creation, fall, redemption, and restoration, ASOUE only offers reasons for creation and fall. The whole series circles around a big question mark, a big question mark that we know is a savior, a redeemer. ASOUE, admirably, doesn’t lie about what that question mark is, but shrugs its shoulders and admits that it doesn’t know. To make up for not knowing, it offers some suggestions on how to make a better, more tolerable world, and how to do so in a kind and gentle manner that is beneficial to others. It certainly provides moralistic messages. However, that isn’t a sufficient answer. ASOUE’s version of morality is sophisticated and wise. But it is still vanity.

Let’s put it like this: ASOUE is the beginning of Ecclesiastes. It is the Ecclesiastes without the hope. And for a time, we need that. We need to acknowledge, reflect, and mourn on our own brokenness and that of the world. Revisiting that at any age is incredibly important as Christians. That’s why you should read this series.

Then after that, we need to find the rest of the story. And that’s where Jesus comes in.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

-Madeleine D.

P.S,

There are many, many more things I could say on this subject, and would be happy to drop everything and talk about it at literally any time! Come talk to me about the symbolism of the VFD eye, or how Sunny’s specialty of cooking furthers the theme of safe places. I’d love to discuss how underrated Daniel Handler is in his consistently good female representation, or how terrible Daniel Handler’s books for adults are compared to his ones for children. Or ask me about how I feel about the adaptational differences between the book and show (but do not ask me about the 2004 movie. We don’t talk about that one.)

*No intended disrespect to Harry Potter. I’m oversimplifying. He shares a lot in common with ASOUE.

December Round-Up, Part Two

To the tune of “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”

Don’t cry for me, my dear readers
The truth is, I never left you
All through my college days, my mad semester
I kept my promise
Returned with vigor

Here are five of the biggest movies, box-office and awards-wise, that have recently come out.

Bohemian Rhapsody

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I didn’t know much about Freddy Mercury before seeing the film, so for the first half, I spent it thinking, “Rami Malek sure is overacting. I don’t know why he’s being nominated for so many awards.” And then I realized this was just the character, and then it got better.

Bohemian Rhapsody is ambitious in recreating famous Queen performances but never decides if it is a character study of Mercury or a celebration of the band and its music. It ends up trying to do a bit of both, and therefore doesn’t do either full justice. It’s a competently made, standard biopic, but there are enough glimmers of greatness here that makes its by-the-book approach feel like a big let-down.

For someone like me, who didn’t know much about Queen beforehand, I was disappointed that the film didn’t change this fact. It is so focused on Mercury that it 1) pushes the other band members aside, and 2) doesn’t tell me why Queen was so revolutionary in its day. It never explains how this band appeared and delighted the wider public. In that way, the film is claustrophobic and doesn’t have much of an outside perspective. But if you like Queen, it sure wouldn’t hurt, and it does do a good job recreating the feeling of seeing a great concert.

Roma

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A black and white foreign language film about a maid in Mexico City in the 70’s is, frankly, not what I usually want to watch. It was a bit of a chore psyching myself up for it. And it might be the same for you, too, but I think you should watch Roma anyway, even if you don’t love it.

For one, it’s a masterclass in filmmaking. Every beautiful shot is deliberate, and every scene breathes. The movie is excellently paced, in a way that tests the audience’s patience but with purpose. There’s not really a plot, but the stakes are raised so excellently that it never feels aimless.

It’s not a film I would want to rewatch, but I marvel at its craftsmanship. And further, it makes a movie star out of someone who represents a group that is never considered worthy to be a movie star, and there is something precious within that itself. It makes the trials and trivial of life feel epic in scope and worthy of attention, which it is. Life, and every life, is worth paying attention too, and that humanity makes Roma a special film, even if it isn’t the most entertaining or poignant film of the year. And it’s on Netflix! There are no excuses.

Mary Poppins Returns

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Mary Poppins Returns is technically a sequel, but it certainly feels like a remake. It hits the original movie beat-for-beat with most of the songs carefully crafted to be one-to-one remixes of songs from the original. I want to fight against the chronic “safeness” of most of the recent Disney movies, but for this film, I can’t. I fell for Mary Poppins Returns.

It probably helps that I don’t have any nostalgia or feelings towards the original. I’ve seen it, but it was never a favorite of mine or a part of my childhood. For those who do love the original, this movie will either be heresy or a delightful reworking. For me, it was a lovely film that was truly able to be a magical way to end the year. It’s not revolutionary, but it plays to its strengths and is propelled by excellent performances all around. It’s the perfect family film.

Aquaman

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Aquaman can be best described through a scene near the end of the film, so mild spoilers. Arthur Curry/Aquaman goes into the den of a monster to retrieve an important trident. He approaches the monster and begins to talk to her.

Before this moment, Arthur tells another character how he grew up only using his fists and hiding his feelings. So when he began to talk to the monster, I started to get excited. Is this going to buck the trend of superhero movies ending with a big battle? Is the day going to be saved through communication and empathy? Is Arthur Curry going to be an example to young men that coming of age doesn’t have to be tied to acts of violence? Are they doing the same ending as Moana?

Arthur begins saying he is Arthur Curry, son of a lighthouse keeper and Queen Atlanna of Atlantis. He’s a nobody, and that’s what makes him the rightful ruler. I started getting more excited. Wow, the story is going to be about our worth coming from our identity, which empowers us! I looked over at my dad next to me. This could be a sermon illustration or something!

Then Arthur finishes his speech by saying to the monster: “and if you don’t like it, then screw you.” And then he grabs the trident and goes to fight in the big battle that ends the movie. So much for diplomacy and empathy.

I applaud the ambition and complete sincerity that director James Wan and the rest of the cast and crew go about making this movie. They go for it. I never felt a single emotion in the entire film, except for disappointment and lethargy, but they go for it. Perhaps I’m just not the right audience. I don’t care for Aquaman, I don’t know the mythology, and the worldbuilding (which is done with excellent special effects) didn’t interest me. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be fun for someone who is invested in the character. It’s just a shame it didn’t hook a new fan.

Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse

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Into the Spiderverse feels very much like Incredibles 2, except with a completely different moral to the story. Both are beautifully animated films, appeal to both children and adults, and are about superheroes. Both build off previous films, and both came out opposite another superhero movie. And both are the only real competitors for animated movies for this year.

From a story perspective, both get bogged down with plot details and villains who are underbaked and feel more like obligations than actual additions to the story. Particularly in Spiderverse, there are scenes that can feel extremely tedious. The real strength lies in the character interactions. Incredibles 2 makes the most of the family dynamic, while Into the Spiderverse gives a delightful deconstruction of Peter Parker and introduces us to a fantastic new hero in Miles Morales. The scenes that highlight their mentor/mentee relationship are some of the best of the year.

Thematically, the two films are opposite. Incredibles 2 tries to say that every person is responsible for being their own superhero, but undercuts its own message by not having any regular people do anything super. In that way, it feels more of a story about exceptionalism, and how to handle being the exception.

Into the Spiderverse, on the other hand, is all about inclusivity. Everyone can wear a mask.  Everyone can be a superhero. Every race, gender, nationality, and age can be Spiderman. Just check out the #spidersona on twitter to see how this is already inspiring people to imagine themselves as heroes.

Musing on this, I came to an epiphany. It’s no secret I love Marvel films. But by this point, those movies have zero interest in inspiring heroism in the audience. MCU movies are melodramas, fueled by the storylines of the characters. The entire franchise is a big soap opera with lots of episodes. You aren’t supposed to see yourself in Tony Stark or Steve Rogers, you’re supposed to see them interacting with each other and reckoning with their own powers. And that’s great, I love watching superhero drama.

But Into the Spiderverse refocuses the genre. It brings the attention back to the audience. In this way, it is the best tribute to Stan Lee, who created these characters to inspire and teach readers. It’s an excellent film with groundbreaking animation that I would highly recommend if you aren’t completely fatigued with superhero faire. It shows there are still new places to go with comic book stories.

-Madeleine D

December Round-Up, Part One

If you’re anything like me, December, with the holidays, relatives, and breaks from school/work, becomes the perfect month to catch up on all of your movie watching before Oscar season and a new year. In my case, this is also the month where I have the time and mind to catch up on some reviews, so let me offer some suggestions for what movies should be on your “nice” list. Here are six smaller films, some of which were released earlier in the year.

Sorry to Bother You

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It’s useless to try to describe this film to anyone who hasn’t seen it, so I’m just going to say this: if you want to see one of the most bizarre, memorable, and radical pieces of art this year, see Sorry to Bother You. A defiant and explosive mix of satire, parable, and horror, it embodies the chaos our nation felt this year. It feels like 2018 in movie form, and it does so while feeling completely fresh and wholly unique.

A Simple Favor

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The movie equivalent of a twinkie, A Simple Favor is ridiculous and completely over-the-top but is well anchored by a great performance by Anna Kendrick and twists that never stop coming. Its mysteries are not ones the audience is supposed to be able to solve alongside the protagonists, so the fun comes from the absurd escalation of stakes. It’s not a good movie, and but it’s a perfect addition to the emerging Gone Girl knockoff genre. I think it has been well-established by now that yes, women can be crazy, but if you need more evidence, this film will suffice.

The Spy Who Dumped Me

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There have been lots of great films starring women this year, but less starring multiple women and close female friendships (no, Oceans 8 is not enough). The Spy Who Dumped Me then is a fun surprise for its likable and hilarious center of best friends played by Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon. Sure, not every joke in this action caper comedy lands, and it doesn’t quite pay off in the end, but it’s hard for me to dislike a film that made me think of me and my best friend. It’s a solid perfect rental for a light movie night and despite some crudity and gory violence, it ends up being a sweet celebration of friendship.

The Grinch

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Dull. I’ve forgotten most of what happens in it. There is absolutely no reason to watch this instead of the original animated film.

Mowgli

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Thrown onto Netflix after seeing they wouldn’t be able to compete with Disney’s live-action remake, Andy Serkis’s version of the live-action Jungle Book is sadly in the right place, not on the big screen. I applaud the more mature tone and ambition of the film, but it ends up feeling like a joyless slog. Serkis’s effort to differentiate his version from the Disney versions means all of the characters are mean and without any strong characterization, making you wonder why Mowgli likes these unpleasant companions at all. The questionable choice of putting human faces on animals works against the film’s interest, actually keeping most of the actors from being able to get through, with the exception of Christian Bale as Bagheera, who is able to put in the strongest and tenderest performance. Mowgli is never able to give a spin on the story that justifies its existence.

Instant Family

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Instant Family, a movie about a couple (played by an extremely good Rose Byrne and Mark Wahlberg) who take in three foster children, isn’t a revolutionary family dramedy, but it gets the job done. It tells a sweet story that, while sanitized, is still able to get across many of the difficulties and complexities of its subject matter. I’ve been told by at least one family who fosters that the film is very realistic.

For what it’s worth, I cried at the end. True, I watched this right after finals, and its tear-jerker ending was the perfect outlet for my catharsis. But I also think it is just a good film without so much as a drop of cynicism, and I hope it is truly able to do some good and inspire people to accept the noble calling of being a foster parent.

 

-Madeleine D

Feel-Good Isn’t Good Enough: Green Book

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Green Book tells the story of Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), an Italian-American tough guy, who is hired as a chauffeur and guard for Dr. Don Shirely (Mahershala Ali), a black musician embarking on a concert series in the deep south in 1962. Based on a true story, the odd-couple road-trip has the two characters overcoming their personal biases, as Tony’s eyes are opened to his own prejudice and Don Shirley realizes he needs to loosen up and eat fried chicken and play the blues. The dramedy is good, the mediation on race is not, and I think it is most telling that most of the scenes that discuss race are between white people, without Mahershala Ali or any other person of color in it. So…. we’re going to discuss that.

Now not every movie with black and white protagonists need to explicitly discuss race. But this one, by the necessity of the story and by choice, chooses to. That means there is an expectation in place to do it well, which it doesn’t.

The movie’s thoughts on race feel like they are straight out of the 1960s. And yes, that’s when the movie takes place, but this is a film made in 2018, and therefore needs to reflect our more nuanced conversations. So having a movie where the message boils down to, Just get along guys! If we were all friends, none of this would be this way, shows a serious lack of thoughtfulness on the part of the filmmakers. The idea that friendship will solve racism makes it seem, as Princess Weekes writes in her review of the film for The Mary Sue, “as if the centuries that black people spent enslaved on the fields and in the houses of white plantations wasn’t enough of a team-building exercise.”

I understand there are restrictions on the narrative because it’s a true story, but there are ways director Peter Farrelly could frame it without being so simplistic. I understand the desire to say, “Why can’t a movie about a black person and a white person becoming friends be good enough? Isn’t the only way to fight racism through individual relationships?” And that, to a degree, is true. But the film doesn’t even try to address how we start working on deconstructing institutional racism and it asks its black characters to do all of the work towards reconciliation. That is what the problem is. And further, it suggests that now that Tony has had this experience, by spending time with a special black person who is able to change his worldview, he is “cured.” But that isn’t the case. White people must be constantly assessing their own biases and working on changing the racism that has been ingrained into us, no matter how well we were raised or how subtle it seems. Having black friends won’t simply fix that, and thinking it does will make us complacent.

There have been many excellent films about race that came out this year, but I think the best ones are the ones who challenge our binary categories of “racist” or “not racist.” This movie and BlackKklansman are films where racism is either solved or easily relegated to the bad characters. In comparison, a movie like The Hate U Give shows that even the most well-meaning white characters still have a ways to go, and further, was not a movie that held the hand of those white characters, because it is not the job of black people to teach white people about racism. This is what Green Book does. Princess Weekes continues in her review,

Black people and white people should try to understand each other better, but why does that always have to be framed with Black people doing all the work? Let’s be clear: This has nothing to do with “wokeness” or needing [Green Book] to be “woke.” It’s about the fact that these movies are not for Black people, but utilize Black pain and black historical trauma to craft feel-good movies to make white people cry…A black or brown person “teaching” a white person to not be racist, in return for learning to enjoy fried chicken, is not a fair exchange.

I’m being extra hard on this movie because it’s pulling in front of the awards race. If the Academy truly cares about nominating and awarding movies from marginalized groups that actually furthers discussion in our country and exposes millions of people to new stories and worldviews, then they need to nominate movies other than Green Book. It’s a fun buddy movie, and Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen do an excellent job. But that isn’t enough.

My new rule of thumb is that if I, a white person, walk out of a movie that discusses race and I feel good about it, then something is wrong.

It’s Alive?: Mary Shelley and Victor Frankenstein

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In honor of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s 200th birthday, and because I read the book for the first time this summer, I decided to watch two recent films made/inspired by the groundbreaking science fiction novel.

The first is this year’s Mary Shelley, which tells the story of Shelley’s life up to the publication of Frankenstein. The movie mainly focuses on her marriage to Percy Shelley and tries to connect parts of Mary’s life to her novel in order to show where she got her inspiration. One place this inspiration comes from is Mary Shelley’s mother, trailblazing feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, best known for writing A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Referring to Wollstonecraft is great, as she did play a large role in Mary’s life, even though she died soon after Mary was born. The problem is, the film tries to give Wollstonecraft’s personality and characteristics to Shelley. They had similarities, yes, but were also very different people, which is part of what makes their relationship so interesting. The film does this so often that it makes me think they really just should have made a movie about Wollstonecraft. Mary Shelley should be known, of course, and had an interesting life, but that interesting life was spent, for a large part, writing and grieving. There is only so much you can do to depict those in a visual medium, and this movie just isn’t up to the task. But, Mary Wollstonecraft was a much more vibrant character, and her story would lend itself better to this visual medium and it seems like the filmmakers felt the same way.

Frustratingly, this lackluster film does have scenes of brilliance that reveal and comment on Mary Shelley and the world around her. For example, there is a scene where Percy comes home and Mary tells him a friend of theirs made an advance on her. She refused him, but she clearly wants Percy to go avenge her and be grateful to her for her faithfulness to him. But instead, he’s upset. He wishes she had said yes to the man, so it would excuse his own affair. This scene is pointing out how the open-marriage, free-love ideologies of Percy and Byron always hurt and disempowered the women involved.

The potential of these moments makes me wish for what this movie could have been, a bold take on a brilliant author, instead of a Pride and Prejudice (2005) wannabe. These are the scenes that embrace the contradictions of Mary’s life, but they do not make up the whole film. Instead, the film is made up of melodramatic scenes that feel uninteresting and hollowing. Most baffling of all, in a film that wants to be about Mary and Percy Shelley’s unconventional romance, it not only tries to have an overly-construed happy conclusion, but the film ends right before some of the greatest drama of their relationship. Since the film seems more interested in the romance than Frankenstein anyway, why limit the timeline of the film? These creative choices make no sense and cripple the film even further.

So despite a few good scenes and great performances by Elle Fanning and Douglas Booth, Mary Shelley is competent but numbingly bland. But, while I would prefer movies to be both competently made and interesting, if I had to choose between competent and bland or disastrously entertaining, I would choose the latter. So the nicest thing I can say about our second film, Victor Frankenstein, is that it is disastrously entertaining.

The movie itself has very, very little to do with the original novel, yet lacks a clear vision for what it wants to be on its own. It’s told mainly from the perspective of Igor, a character made up in pop culture and not from the original novel. The story, I guess, is supposed to be about the lead-up to the creation of the creature (who is only present for a full five minutes at the end of the film) but the real heart of the story is Victor “creating” Igor, and Igor struggling between his respect for Victor and his fear of Victor’s madness. That storyline is much more of a creator and creation story than the one between Frankenstein and the monster as presented in this film. So why does screenwriter Max Landis keep trying to cover this, the most interesting part of the film, up?  Add in an underdeveloped female love interest (in case anyone is getting any ideas about there being romance in this bromance) and a stock religious-fanatic-villain and the second and third act of the film is bogged down beyond repair. Victor Frankenstein doesn’t play to its strengths, which is the dynamic between Victor and Igor, played by James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe respectively. These actors have come here to chew gum and scenery, and they’re all out of gum. Their scenes are a guilty delight, but there is not nearly enough to let me recommend you this film in good conscience.

So, if you are in the mood for some Frankenstein, I would instead highly recommend the book Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley, by Charlotte Gordon, which tells the story of Mary Wollstonecraft’s trailblazing work for feminism and her fascinating, complicated life, and that of her daughter, Mary Shelley, and the tragedies that compel her to write the first science fiction novel. The book tells their stories in alternating chapters that show how the two women’s lives mirror one another. It is more enlightening and perceptive than Mary Shelley, and just a lot more worthy of your time than Victor Frankenstein. It’s a big book, but I couldn’t put it down. And to clarify, not only could I not put it down, but I read the entire book during my trip to New Zealand. It was so good, I literally set aside time while in Middle Earth to read this book. I also recommend, of course, the original novel Frankenstein, which not only holds up after 200 years but continues to become more and more relevant as time goes on.

Bonus Frankencontent:

I listened to Frankenstein on Audible, with narration by Dan Stevens. It was a truly tremendous 8 hours. Stevens makes every voice distinct, makes even the longest of monologues feel brisk and exciting, and carries the story with bravado. I would 10/10 recommend for both someone new to the book and an alum.

Additionally, my local movie theater offered a showing through Fathom Events of Frankenstein, a play written by Nick Dear, directed by Danny Boyle, and starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, who alternate between the roles of Frankenstein and the Creature. It was originally put on by the National Theatre in London in 2011. I watched the version with Cumberbatch as the Creature and Miller as Frankenstein.

It is “inspired by” Shelley’s Frankenstein, and it truly takes such liberties that I can’t say much without spoiling it. But I can say that if you like Benedict Cumberbatch, be sure to see this version with him as the creature. The play is from the Creature’s perspective, so he has the bigger role, and he does a phenomenal job interpreting the Creature as a newborn child mixed with a Shakespearean caveman. It’s weird, but he commits to it, and it somehow works.

I’m not familiar with much of Miller’s work, except that he is the inferior Sherlock, and this play does him no favors. Victor Frankenstein in Shelley’s book is a conflicted, agonized, multifaceted character who here has been reduced to a mad-scientist caricature, without a hint of humanity or complexity.

Therefore the writing is the weakest part. While I can admit Dear certainly has some interesting thoughts on the themes of Shelley’s novel, they never come to fruition during the meandering second half. One of these more interesting elements is Dear’s attempt to build upon the sexual undercurrents of the novel. While it’s not a bad instinct, he handles it, in my eyes, with unnecessary gratuity.

This all creates a dazzling stage production whose script threatens to overtake the good work of everyone else involved but is pulled through with a delightful performance by Cumberbatch that is able to, in the end, be considered a successful addition to what I’m going to call the “Good Adaptations of Frankenstein” genre. Too bad Mary Shelley and Victor Frankenstein won’t be joining it.

-Madeleine D

♫ HAAAA AHA AHA AHH AHHHH HAAAA AH♫ : A Star Is Born

A star is born

If you know what the title of this review is referring to, you’ve probably seen A Star is Born. Or you’ve seen the trailer, in which case, you’ve seen the film. This is going to be an in-depth review, with spoilers, so if you haven’t seen this new remake, go see it, and come back.

After seeing A Star is Born, I didn’t know what to think, so I began reading as many reviews and think pieces about the film as I could, to see if anyone else was feeling how I was and could articulate it. (So, I guess the cat’s out of the bag. I don’t just watch a film, retreat into a cave, and hope to make brilliant insights. I often talk to multiple people about the film, read other reviewers, and occasionally make blood sacrifices in order to write these reviews.)

In this case, research (and college) delayed this review because I want to be careful. I think in many ways A Star is Born is this year’s La La Land. An audience favorite, excellently made, has some conflicting messages, and is about Hollywood (this A Star is Born is about the music business but the original two films were about Hollywood, and that’s still what the heart of the film is about).

However, I think A Star is Born is a more interesting film than La La Land because I think it’s a film that, more than most, presents itself without much of a lens. You see, every film has a worldview. Every piece of art does. Being a discerning viewer is just the action of deciphering what the film’s worldview is, and not letting it sink in without some interrogation. But, what makes A Star is Born so interesting is that it is able to hide that worldview in a way that makes it more of a mirror- who the viewer is informs his or her interpretation of the piece.

Yet A Star is Born still does have a lens, no matter how well-hidden. To see what the filmmakers are saying about the material, we have to look at what the text says (the text being the substance of the film) and then the attitude in which it’s presented, which will reveal the ideologies of the filmmakers. And while film-making is a team effort, for the sake of simplicity I’m going to attribute ownership to director, co-writer, and star Bradley Cooper.

The original story of A Star is Born is about many things. It’s about fame and what it does to people. It’s about addiction. And it’s about the dynamics of male insecurity and female success. This is true in all previous versions of the film (Full disclosure: I have only seen the 1954 Judy Garland and James Mason version). Even in this latest version, which adds the poptimism vs rockist debate, it still has an element of gender, as rock is often coded as masculine, and pop as feminine, as these groups are the face of those respective genres. So in this version, the “male insecurity” is replaced with “authenticity” and “woman’s rise to fame” with “pop/selling out.” All of which makes this conversation a lot more difficult.

I think if you approach the film with the idea that Ally should be able to make the music she is comfortable with, and this does not at all excuse Jackson’s toxic behavior or addiction, then the text of the film seems to be saying that Jackson’s character is, no matter how well-intentioned, in the wrong. He starts drinking after Ally’s SNL performance, but that’s on him, not her. She never once shows regret for that performance or song. With all of Jackson’s talk about authenticity, he admits to “stealing” his brother’s voice, he later threatens to steal Ally’s song by performing it unless she sings with him, and before he commits suicide, he lays down his cowboy hat, as if taking off one final mask. These all read as Jackson having his own artifice, one he can’t bring himself to admit he has. His power over his career, and Ally, even if he won’t say it, is directly in proportion to her rise to fame. So he counteracts it with assuring himself of his own authenticity, and assuring himself that she is the pop sell-out who needs his protection and guidance, thus giving power back to him. Ally never sees it as a zero-sum game, but Jackson does.

This all makes it clear he’s insecure, holding onto a by-gone time, and his attitudes about authenticity and pop are misguided at best. Even if it isn’t as clear as previous incarnations, this has the same commentary on relationships and gender as the originals. But I don’t think that’s the message people will immediately walk out of the theater with, including myself, because the film has a visual language that goes straight for your heart, and the feeling the film evokes towards Jackson are tragedy and sympathy. Cooper is obsessed with making Jackson sympathetic, from his tragic backstory to his struggle with addiction being called “a disease,” and adding modern flourishes that are supposed to assure us that this cowboy-hat-wearing-country-boy isn’t like other cowboy-hat-wearing-country-boys (such as setting up this supposed authenticity-obsessed heterosexual love story in a drag bar, which shows this film doesn’t really understand the point of drag.) So while the film does admit that yes, Jackson is jealous and insecure but sees all of this as trying to protect Ally, it is presented as a tragic love story that could have been fixed if things had just gone differently. Richard Brody nails it on the head when he writes in his review of the film for The New Yorker, “The film is made in such a way as to spare Cooper any fear of jealousy: its vision of self-expression is, above all, the expression of one self.”

To be fair, this remake does go to some lengths to equalize the relationship between Jackson and Ally, so the remakes become less of a story about gender roles and more of one between the struggle of staying true to your artistic visions and what that looks like. But this is a story that has always been about gender, and it can’t pretend it’s not. It is in sidestepping this area of the story where Cooper weakens the film.

In order to ensure this sympathy and sidestep the troubling implications of the story, Cooper makes some storytelling cheats. Ally is sidelined for the second half of the film, so we don’t get to actually hear from her, which means the only true point of view we get is Jackson’s. As he spends the film feeling Ally is being inauthentic, this is what the audience is conditioned to think, too. When we do hear from Ally, after some reluctance at the start, she is positive about her success. Her new hair color, her producer notes, was her choice. She loves her success, and so does her audience. She doesn’t see herself as inauthentic, and anytime she becomes doubtful, it’s after Jackson makes a comment about it. And most importantly, it’s important to consider that you can do both. You can make bouncy pop songs and so-called “authentic” ballads. It shouldn’t be a binary choice, yet for Ally’s character, it is presented as such (and conveniently we don’t see how Jackson is able to support his career so independently without making any of the same concessions as she does).

I applaud the film for exploring the anxiety this man has about the changes in his life. Just because he does bad things doesn’t mean he’s a villain or should be one-dimensional, or shouldn’t be looked at with compassion. Exploring why he feels jealous and anxious and can’t let go of his ideas of what is authentic (i.e, him) is important, especially in a time where a lot of men feel unsure of their place in a rapidly changing culture.

The problem is that Cooper is uncomfortable with associating Jackson with any of these things. Cooper dodges these discussions, instead leaning into the romantic tragedy of the story, without really digging deep into all of the reasons this story keeps resonating. All of these elements are present in the film, and if you think about it you can find them. But the way the film is presented, not to mention its press tour, covers a lot of that up. In a movie that is obsessed with taking off Lady Gaga’s makeup as some kind of sign of a woman revealing her *true* self, it doesn’t quite let Jackson do the same, even when his character has seemingly vulnerable moments.

A Star is Born is an entertaining, extremely well-made film. It’s a fascinating start for Bradley Cooper’s directing career and Lady Gaga’s Hollywood takeover. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack on repeat. The screenplay sets up a complicated story that doesn’t take sides and instead lets its character struggle. It pays homage to the originals while still being its own entity. The only thing standing in its way is Cooper, who doesn’t feel comfortable allowing the film to explore its own depths. He seems, like his character, to be afraid of sharing too much of the spotlight, and instead shapes a superficial narrative that threatens to cast a shadow over the other excellent work done here. But it doesn’t have to. I have discussed the film with many people, and more than a lot of movies this year, everyone seems to have a unique interpretation, and any movie that can stir up so much thought is an accomplishment.

-Madeleine D